March 13, 2020 was a day that I will never forget. Ironically, it was also a Friday. That was the last day with my students in a face-to-face setting. As my colleagues and I left that afternoon, we thought we would be back by April, May at the latest. Very few of us thought we would start the 2020-21 school year teaching remotely. Well, that is the reality, and we understand that Fall must be different. The lessons we learned in the Spring will be our guide for Fall challenges. Preparation is everything and we now have experience to rely upon.
As teachers, we learned that students need school, and teachers, for social growth. My students handled March and April well, but May was a different story. The students I saw virtually in May looked tired and lethargic. I attributed this change to a lack of social engagement. Students need social interaction like they need food. With Fall approaching, I am looking for ways to have students connect within the school setting, but not necessarily about school. Making our shared lunch time a time for students to hang out and just be teenagers, will help their academic stamina. This may sound backward but focusing on students social emotional learning over content is necessary for remote learning. A tired, lethargic, and unengaged student will learn less. A happy and engaged student can grow academically even in a remote environment. To grow a student, teachers must encourage and provide opportunities for interaction and engagement. Kids need energy and they can get it from one another, and from their teachers.
Spring also showed teachers a glaring divide. There is a huge gap in socioeconomic levels in schools, and our students. Some students filled family roles for working parents. School became less of a priority. Those quiet students were no longer a positive note, lunch chat, or smile away. They were now a name on a Zoom screen. The inequity of spring was disturbing, but it can be addressed. Develop an equity focus. Inequity can take many forms and vary between demographics. Be present for all students. Listen to, watch for, and respond to student’s needs. Build that relationship through creative means. That relationship may mean more than you realize to that student. Do not leave any student behind. All students need their teachers, even if they do not show it. Each student needs to feel relevant and be validated for who they are. Be intentional, present, and aware of the differing needs of your students. It is a big, and especially important task.
How can a science lesson address student social needs, and at the same time be equitable? In a word, phenomenon. Phenomenon show students the science they unconsciously engage in every day. Phenomenon establish a student’s background knowledge. Phenomenon create discussions, drive questions, and validate student thinking. Phenomenon balance the playing field. Phenomenon bring us together. When your class revolves around phenomenon it becomes a community of learners. Phenomenon allow us to create a shared learning space where everyone is learning from, and with, each other. In the NGSS world, phenomena are a catalyst to learning. I have come to realize that phenomena are much more than a catalyst. They build a learning community where everyone can contribute in their language, with their ideas. Find images of cool phenomenon. Examples that go outside what you are covering in class. Start class with “Five Minutes of Phenomenon!” Show it. Discuss it. Connect it. Phenomenon are not just a gateway to science understanding; they are also the ties that bring us together.
Spring was difficult. I often went to bed thinking, “That did not work. I do not think I can do this”. I let the change in location change who I was as a teacher. Instead of finding ways to make remote learning ‘normal’ I pivoted and left something behind. I stopped being me. Yes, there are things that I am unable to do with my students in a remote setting. So, focus on all the things you can still do. Take the first three minutes of class to learn about a student’s day. Greet students as they enter a video meeting. Laugh with your kids! Be you! How many of us have said that the system is taking the fun out of education? That is a choice we make. It does not have to be that way. When we stay true to who we are as teachers, we can put the fun and excitement in class time, whether it be in person or remote. There is no need to change everything. Adjust what you do to let the best of you show. Students feed off us. If we get stagnant, they plateau. If we keep being creative and bring our personality into remote learning, students will grow. I am going to keep being me when class resumes. It is what my students need, want, and expect. Our personality will make our remote environment a little less sterile.
I learned a lot in spring. That knowledge will guide me. It will help me stay focused on my students needs. It will facilitate the creation of an equitable shared learning space. It will keep me using phenomenon to drive class. The knowledge from Spring will help me continue to be the teacher I am in the classroom.
Middle School Science Teacher